Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

So… as I said in my last post (oh so long ago now), recently I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” after it turned up on the shortlist for the Retro Hugo awards, juxtaposed with pulpy stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett. Which, I grant, seems incongruous.

It’s possible to argue–I’ve seen arguments made, anyway–that salting a SF shortlist with classic literature is a dubious move. That such a list might simply be grabbing at cultural respectability, poaching a work that came from outside the SF tradition and therefore doesn’t really belong with it. What’s interesting about this argument is that it could just as easily come from people skeptical of genre fiction, or from genre fans who resent “literary” fiction and insist the beloved pulp of their childhoods is just as good as–no, better than–the books their ninth grade English teacher forced them to read. I would refuse to belong to these groups even if they were willing to have me as a member.

Genre is just a tool for describing what fiction is doing. Any interesting fiction does more than one thing, and might be grouped with any number of genres. The people of Tlon assume all books are the work of one all-encompassing author, whose mind they reconstruct by juxtaposing such wildly dissimilar volumes as the Tao Te Ching and the Arabian Nights; we probably shouldn’t go that far. But no laboratory test in existence can establish definitively how much of which genres any book contains. I’d argue that anyone who can come up with an argument (reasonable or not) for putting a particular work in a particular genre should feel free to do so. The only excuses you need are “Does this make for an enjoyable argument?” and “Could putting this story next to these others lead to interesting ideas?”[1]

For those who haven’t read “Tlon,” a summary: the narrator, a fictionalized Borges, hears of an imaginary world, Tlon, referenced only in an article on a nonexistent country appearing in a single bootleg copy of an encyclopedia. Later he discovers a volume from the Encyclopedia of Tlon which gives a more complete picture of Tlon’s radically different worldview.

SF still has a lot to learn for Borges. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like much of his work, is a story in the form of an essay. You don’t see this much in science fiction or fantasy. I mean, yeah, there aren’t massive quantities of fictional nonfiction in general. But it’s odd that essay-stories don’t turn up much more often in SF, because the format suits SF so well. Some strains of SF just want to build worlds, or speculate about new technologies’ effects on society, and these are too often the ones with clichéd plots and flat characters. Maybe these stories authors’ only cared about (and, incidentally, had the right sort of talents to deal with) the ideas that weren’t related to plot or character… but, not realizing that fiction didn’t have to be conventionally plotted and narrated, they bolted on perfunctory plots and characters about which they felt no real enthusiasm. A lot of golden-age-style engineering problem stories would benefit from being written as fake journal articles. A lot of epic fantasies would be better off as fictional travel writing in the vein of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Still, not many essay-stories turn up in Best SF collections; in genre the only writer I can think of who embraced the form enthusiastically was Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum (which includes a nod to Borges) and Imaginary Magnitude collected reviews of, and prefaces to, nonexistent books.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uses its essay format to build a world in a small space. Worldbuilding is core to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s often seen as a distraction, an invitation for geeks to vanish down their own navels; M. John Harrison famously called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. (For the opposing view, see China Miéville.) “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leans toward Harrison’s vision of worldbuilding as toxic labyrinth–but more on that later.

I sometimes agree with M. John Harrison, but I think there are different kinds of worldbuilding. One kind, the kind that can seduce a writer into compiling a thousand-page wannabe-Silmarillion recording the undistinguished deeds of indistinguishable gods and heroes, is boring. But I think other kinds are relevant to creating worlds with a sense of life, and characters who seem to live as citizens of those worlds instead of using them as sketchy backdrops for narcissistic protagonisting. One concerns itself with the material conditions of people’s lives–their food, their jobs and pastimes, their plumbing. Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.

The Tlonites tick differently. Their worldview resembles the “subjective idealism” proposed by the 18th century philosopher George Berkely: Tlon denies that material reality exists. Instead there are actions and perceptions. Tlon’s languages have no nouns; one is composed entirely of verbs, another of adjectives, which they use to describe objects, which exist only when perceived. Tlon’s geometry insists that a moving person modifies the forms that surround them, its mathematics claims that counting changes an indefinite number into a definite one. In Tlon, ideas make things: the desire to find a lost object, or even the hope to find something previously unknown, can create new objects called hronir. In Tlon science and philosophy are more games than searches for truth. The point is to construct arguments that come to interesting conclusions.

In the final section of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, ostensibly written seven years later, we learn about the secret society that invented Tlon at the behest of a rich American who wanted to prove God wasn’t the only entity who could create worlds, dagnabbit. The Encyclopedia of Tlon, it turns out, exists in its entirety.

Which brings us back to M. John Harrison’s suspicion of worldbuilding. When I looked up that famous “clomping foot of nerdism” quotation I was struck by a passage that seemed to resonate with Borges’s story:

It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

The Orbis Tertius group releases the entire Encyclopedia of Tlon into the wild, along with a handful of artifacts apparently from Tlon. Now Tlon is everywhere, more inescapable than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The public devours Tlon’s history, adopts Tlon’s culture. Schools teach Tlon’s languages. It’s what everyone on the internet is writing inane thinkpieces about. Everybody loves Tlon because Tlon is simple. Bizarre, yes. But Tlon is the product of human minds, so can be completely contained in and comprehended by human minds–unlike the infinite, complex, accidental, ultimately unknowable real universe that produced the minds that produced Tlon. In a few years, Borges speculates, the world will be Tlon.

So, worldbuilding. What’s it for? Potentially lots of things. I think a lot of them are good. Worldbuilding can create just the right environment to make a story work. Stories of other worlds can show readers other possibilities, good and bad; other ways of thinking or arranging societies. I’m even sympathetic to worldbuilding as consolation, providing imaginary places to daydream about. If occasional escapism helps someone exist in the world, I’m not one to sneer. (There’s a Lynda Barry quotation that turns up a lot on the internet: “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”)

But in these worlds some people find consolation of another, stupider kind. Science fiction and fantasy, the genres most concerned with worldbuilding, are beloved of geek culture, which in the 21st century is mainstream culture. (See: Marvel Cinematic Universe, inescapableness of.) See, geek culture has this pathology–well, geek culture has several pathologies, but this essay is concerned with just one. Geek culture has a habit of relating to its favorite fictions, especially franchises and expanded universes, through a kind of obsessive collector mentality. Not collecting things, collecting facts–fictional facts, at least. Memorizing every detail of the history of Middle Earth, knowing exactly which issue of X-Men each character was introduced in, remembering the name and personal history of every alien in the Star Wars cantina.

Which sounds harmless, but leads to so many annoyances. Like, any discussion involving a pop culture phenomenon, something like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, stands a nonzero chance of getting derailed by obsessives arguing over canon: which fictional facts fit with all the other fictional facts, and which have to be thrown out? I’m usually the first to argue that any critical approach can lead to an interesting conversation regardless of how generous you have to be to describe it as a “critical approach,” but even I must admit this stuff is tedious.

What’s worse are the geeks who form in-groups based on obsessive cataloguing, and resentfully police their boundaries with trivia. You’re not a proper fan unless you’ve read all the right science fiction novels,[2] or agree that the animated Star Trek series isn’t canon, or like the right version of Doctor Who. Women in particular seemingly can’t show interest in geek culture things without being quizzed on trivialities by tedious nerds hoping to expose “fake geek girls.”

And then there’s the way any remake, addition, or slight change to any media franchise brings man-children crawling out from under their rocks crying that their childhoods are being ruined.[3] And we have to put up with this nonsense constantly, because the studios that control 90% of American pop culture have run out of ideas and produce nothing but remakes, additions, and slight changes to franchises. As I write this the internet is up in arms because what appears to be a perfectly inoffensive remake of Ghostbusters happens to star women. It’s exactly as tiresome as turning on the radio and hearing the overplayed single you’re most sick of.

So why does this subset of geekdom treat exhaustive surveys of places that aren’t there with a seriousness normally reserved for nuclear nonproliferation treaties? Why the pathetic overreactions?

You might as well ask why everybody in Borges’s world is obsessed with Tlon. Exhaustively surveying a place that isn’t there is exactly the kind of worldbuilding Orbis Tertius does. As M. John Harrison notes, a literally exhaustive survey of the world would be too big for anyone to comprehend in its entirety. Reality contradicts itself, and it keeps changing–tripping people up with new facts. And, let’s face it, reality has terrible continuity. Like, the characters in the “United States” spinoff are supposed to be incredibly afraid of terrorism, but nobody does anything about the mass shootings happening every other day. What sense does that make? Something here isn’t canon! And then there’s that “quantum mechanics” business, which the writers are obviously making up as they go along. And don’t get me started on the way they keep randomly killing off major characters!

Tlon is orderly. Tlon can be catalogued, managed. Tlon can be mastered. The real world is confusing, but with Tlon the fans can feel like they’re in control… At least until Orbis Tertius decides to rewrite Tlon. Or add some new characters. Or remake it with a non-nerd-approved cast. That’s when the panic sets in.[4] The fans, tripped up by new facts, this formerly managable system out of their control, have to face the fact that they’re not masters of anything at all.

Borges identifies the impulse that drives people to Tlon–the desire to simplify and tame the universe–with the impulse that drove people to fascism and totalitarianism. When I look at the grimier edges of nerd culture I’m not sure he’s wrong. Note, again, how much of the behavior I’m describing is bound up with defining and expelling out-groups, and with sexism in particular–whining when the SF canon lets in authors from marginalized groups, refusing to accept the new, diverse characters added to their treasured franchises. There’s some irony in the fact that science fiction, a genre full of stories about opening minds, discovering new things, and accepting the alien, has fans terrified of the new and different in real life… but fictional difference and novelty are under control, and that’s how they like it. Imagine a nerd foot clomping on a human face–forever.

I have no solution for any of this. Neither does Borges in his story; he just does his best to take no notice. Maybe he has the right idea. There are styles of worldbuilding that don’t pander to obsessives and can handle glitches with grace; there are fictional worlds where two planets can have the same name and Atlantis can sink three times without falling apart.[5] Let the Tlonist geeks freak out whenever their authority over trivialities is challenged; I’ll be over here, actually enjoying myself. Only… maybe they could freak out where I don’t have to listen to them?

  1. Incidentally, the first place I read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was in an anthology called The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I read when I was young and just recently interested in SF. Like many older anthologies it had a serious gender imbalance–there were more women it could have included, if the editors had worked harder to find them–but within its limits it was a great anthology. It had lots of translated stories, some by writers I’ve never read elsewhere, and brought writers like Sheckly, Le Guin, and Bradbury together with writers like Borges and Boris Vian.  ↩

  2. Some SF fans will tell you proper SF fans should be conversant with the works of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is like insisting that anyone interested in English literature absolutely must read Samuel Richardson.  ↩

  3. Invariably followed by a flood of superfluous online thinkpieces noting that, hey, man-children are crying, what’s up with that?  ↩

  4. Although continuity can be rewritten in the service of Tlonism, too. The last thirty years of DC Comics constitute an endless series of increasingly baroque and preposterous attempts to force their entire line into internal consistency.  ↩

  5. My favorite media franchise, Doctor Who, has over the years has gone off in any number of mutually contradictory directions. I might get annoyed when one particular strand of Doctor Who seems to be playing narrative Calvinball, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that different strands of the series have featured two different versions of Human Nature with two different Doctors and two different political slants. This is a show that had an episode where the Doctor had to defeat somebody wanting to set Earth’s canon in stone to better catalogue it. And yet Doctor Who fans still have arguments about canon!  ↩

Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

I’ve read a lot of books in recent months that I didn’t finish, or felt ambivalent about. I have notes on a few of them.

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

This is a portal fantasy with a pair of protagonists. The first protagonist is a loser. He finds a door–a literal door–to another world, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to him in, like, ever; he fully expects that in this new world he’ll be a hero. Rather uniquely, the novel realizes he’s an idiot. He does end up touched by Mysterious Powers but his homeless friend, protagonist number two, is the one who’ll probably have something closer to a traditional hero role. This novel is trying to deconstruct stories about schlubs who travel to another world and discover their inner strength. I have a soft spot for this genre, but I still enthusiastically agree it needs deconstruction.

Unfortunately The Pilgrims never arrives where it’s going because it’s the first volume in another damn trilogy that ends on another damn cliffhanger. As usual for the first and second books of trilogies, it feels like mostly padding.

Actually, the padding is interesting to think about, if not to read. I’ve noticed some epic fantasies set lots of action in what you might call “Adventure Land.” Vague fields, forests, or mountains where nothing happens apart from bands of adventurers travelling through having what Dungeons and Dragons calls “encounters.” There’s no evidence that Adventure Land belongs to anyone, or is used for anything, unless it’s been set aside as a park. If so, fantasyland has a very extensive national park system; Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. There might be roads in Adventure Land but these novels rarely mention farms. (Civilizations need agriculture; I’d expect most cities to be surrounded by farms.) There might be a ruin, if the novel is especially D&D-ish. Usually the only inhabitants of Adventure Land are monsters. Or bandits. Or inexplicably self-sufficient cottages which if the protagonist is lucky are owned by helpful allies, and if unlucky by Tom Bombadil.

A lot of The Pilgrims takes place in Adventure Land. It’s specifically mentioned that farming is taking place under a dome. Beyond that, there’s a city, and a castle, and the rest of the land is… I dunno. I’ve got to admit, by the midpoint of the novel I was picturing the characters tramping across a giant lawn.

Graydon Saunders, The March North

Saunders writes SF like John M. Ford did: leaning heavily on incluing for explanations, feeding you only just enough context to deduce the world, the backstory, and the underlying meaning of what’s happening. I find that Ford stays just on the right side of gnomic. For me, Saunders crossed the line into obtuse. This may be partly because The March North is military fantasy, which is not usually my thing. There’s a lot of military jargon and maneuvering and it’s hard to tell how much is relevant, or in what way. The characters spend long passages exchanging technobabble about magic artillery. On the positive side of the ledger, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. On the negative side, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. It’s not particularly interesting, and it’s never clear why it’s relevant.

The characters are mostly ciphers; salient facts about the narrator’s identity and background aren’t made clear for a while, and the soldiers might as well be a formless mass labeled “soldiers.” When a good chunk of them die it’s about as affecting as seeing barrels get smashed in a video game.

There’s a second book set in the same world that doesn’t share the same setup or characters as this one. It might have been better if I’d read that first; maybe I’ll try it someday.

Marta Randall, Journey

Marta Randall’s prose is good so at first this seemed promising. I soon discovered this is a book where it’s considered acceptable for a guy to own an entire inhabited planet and treat the natives as servants. I checked some of the later chapters and didn’t see any suggestion that at any point the novel questioned this. 1978 seems late for something like this to be published.

There’s also some lack of acknowledgement of how big planets are. Like, 200 refugees come to this planet owned by a single family, and the wife wants to make it clear the refugees don’t own the land they’re living on. Because—setting aside the natives, which is, let us admit, a pretty massive thing to set aside—an entire planet inhabited by 200 people is facing a serious land shortage, right?

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

The Drosten’s Curse is a Doctor Who tie-in starring the fourth Doctor. It’s an expansion of one of the Time Trips novella ebooks the BBC published a couple years ago.

At first the prose style seemed a little strange. The Drosten’s Curse uses a lot of ellipses and run-on sentences. But it felt right, somehow. Eventually it hit me: the prose is a pretty accurate replica of the way Tom Baker talked when he played the Doctor. The narrative voice of The Drosten’s Curse is the fourth Doctor as a Douglas Adames-esque third person omniscient narrator. That’s a smart choice, and appropriate: the novel takes the same whimsical tone as that one year during Tom Baker’s tenure that Adams worked on the program.

Unfortunately, after a while the novel starts to drag. There’s just too much happening, and too much of it feels random. And it may be that the fourth Doctor’s voice only works as prose in smaller doses.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is the book for anyone who’s interested in epic fantasy but put off by series that seem approximately the size of Borges’s Library of Babel. It’s got revolutions and religious wars and political scheming and cursed monsters and a warrior woman riding a giant bird, all in one volume.

(It’s set in the same world as her earlier A Stranger in Olondria. But you don’t have to have read that book to read this one. But you should!)

Cover of The Winged Histories

Olondria is in a bit of a state. Kestenya, one of the provinces, is rebelling. Believers in Olondria’s old religion are fighting the new official religion that tried to suppress them. The Winged Histories views Oldondria’s civil war through four narrators–Tavis, who flees her shabby-genteel family to become a soldier, Tialon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, Seren, Tavis’s nomadic lover, and Siski, Tavis’s more conventional sister. All four are given individual voices and storytelling styles and points of view. The writing is, as in Samatar’s earlier novel, beautiful; it doesn’t just tell us what her characters feel, it conveys what feeling those things feels like to them.

For me, The Winged Histories is likely to be the best fantasy novel of the year. The problem with reviewing a novel that good after a first reading is that it can be hard to explain what made it so good. It’s easier to step back and analyze the books I’m less caught up in. I’m reduced to waving at it and saying “look at that,” and I’m not sure what to wave at first. Although doesn’t it say something that there are multiple waving-targets to choose from? So many fantasy novels just tell a story and leave it at that; once you’ve closed the last volume there’s no reason to think about it again. The Winged Histories is full of ideas.

Maybe history? Because this is a book about history. I will acknowledge that in some fantasy novels historical exposition can be a bad sign. The Winged Histories isn’t that kind of book. The problems with fantasy history come up when novels infodump a load of ancient creation myths explaining where the generic Evil Forces came from and what Mighty Plot Coupon the hero needs to make them go away. The Winged Histories is about history, and brief passages from Olondria’s official history actually appear in the novel, but it’s the kind of history people feel things about. The Winged Histories is about history that affects its characters’ lives and material realities. It matters to Tavis and Siski that Kestenya, their home, is part of Olondria, and that once it wasn’t. It makes a difference in their lives that their family has ties to Olondria’s rulers–their cousin Dasya is an heir to the throne–that, correctly exploited, could make their family important again.

Tavis is not, at first, concerned with history. She joins the army just because she wants to be a soldier. We get her limited view of the border skirmishes that keep the army busy on the edge of Kestenya. Who is she fighting, and why? She’s not totally sure. She starts to think maybe it’s not good that she’s not sure. Maybe, if she’s going to risk her life, she should risk it for Kestenya. The history of Olondria is placed between the narrators’ sections, so we don’t get exposition until we’ve gotten to know Tavis, and she’s started caring about history, and so by that point we care about Olondria’s history, too.

The historical sections are titled “From Our Common History.” There’s an understanding here–often elided in fantasy–that history is told from a certain point of view, that histories choose certain facts to present, leaving others out. Even objective, honest histories–there’s a lot of information out there, too much for any one history to hold. That’s why there’s always room for new histories of events we’ve studied for centuries: there’s always more to tell.

Tavis, Seren, and Siski are family. Tialon seems the odd one out in this novel; she doesn’t personally know any of them, though she meets Dasya and she also has a connection to A Stranger in Olondria, having appeared in that book. Tialon has spent her life in a tower with her father, the Priest of the Stone. The Stone is literally a big rock, covered in criss-crossing carvings, that serves as his holy book. Tialon is an insider and an outsider: she’s watching a family she has no connection to from a center of power she’s never had the chance to leave.

The Stone, it turns out, has a lot more writing on it than the Priest wanted translated. A lot of people wrote a lot of different lines on this rock. Some of it sounds religious, some more mundane. The Priest calls the extra lines “Orphans” after a line he found on the Stone cursing “these orphans darkening my path.” He’s decided they’re just graffiti some punks scraped into his holy artifact although, as one scholar points out, some of the mundane lines might sound profound when taken metaphorically. The thing is, it’s entirely up to the Priest which lines are the voice of his god and which are Orphans. The Stone is a grab bag from which the Priest picked the lines that told the story he wanted to tell. Yet in his mind he isn’t that story’s author: it came from the Stone.

But by picking out the lines he wants and suppressing the others, he’s not getting the complete story. The texts on the stone are woven into and written through each other, all part of the same artifact. Tialon realizes that people, too, are “written into each other.” She doesn’t know Tavis, Siski, or Seren, but their choices affect her life, and, whether they ever realize it or not, choices Tialon makes affect theirs. Lives coexist and cross over; people are context for each other. Even people who don’t know or think anything about each other (that “orphans” line was, after all, probably referring to actual orphans).

Historical infodumps tend not to work in generic epic fantasy, but that isn’t because fantasy history is an inherently bad idea–it’s that less accomplished fantasies don’t understand history as The Winged Histories does. History isn’t important because it’s full of mysteriously accurate prophecies, or because it contains instructions for defeating the Sauron of the Month. It’s important because it’s the context for people’s lives.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.

Elf Bureaucracy

When reading secondary world fantasy a question I rarely ask is: What language are these people speaking? Most fantasies assume (and there’s nothing wrong with either choice) that everybody in the other world speaks a language just like English, or that the story was translated from some imaginary language. Of the fantasy novels I’ve read, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison–the pen name of Sarah Monette–is among the best at giving the impression that it’s a translation from some another language, and at giving some idea of what that other language is like.

Cover of The Goblin Emperor

The premise is that when the emperor of the elves started feeling embarrassed about his married-to-a-goblin phase he packed his half-goblin son Maia off to the hinterlands in the care of a resentful cousin. Thus, when the entire royal family dies in a blimp-related assassination Maia turns out to be a convenient backup. Maia, whose biggest concern heretofore has been getting through the day without pissing off cousin Setheris, spends the rest of the novel figuring out how this “emperor” business works.

Maia’s language is centered around manners and protocol. A complex system of titles indicates status. Maia uses different forms of address for intimates and acquaintances: The former is indicated by the use of “thee” and the latter by the first person plural, what’s (ironically) known as the “royal we.” You don’t need to understand any of this to follow the story[1]–if you have trouble at first keeping track of all these people and their different titles, that just means you and Maia have something in common. But how these people talk is a window into how they think, and how their society works.[2] It says a lot about Maia’s situation that he uses the intimate form of address hardly at all, and almost always when addressing himself in his head. As emperor, he literally has no intimates.

The fashion in SF is for lots of POV characters. TGE stays in Maia’s head all the way through, which makes him one of the better characters in recent SF: we’re not bouncing around a cast of thousands, so it feels like we have time to get to know him. And because Maia was kept out of the Emperor’s world until now, he knows almost as little of it as we do. We learn his environment with him and this eases us into the novel’s complex worldbuilding. The strict POV is also a structural cue to Maia’s introversion and intellectual bent: Maia lives in his head, and so does the novel. The story’s personality is Maia’s personality.

His personality is different from other contemporary genre heroes. Most pop culture protagonists right now are either face-punchy tough guys or geniuses with no social skills and an excess of snark.[3] Having had my fill of both, I’m now most interested in heroes who solve problems while being decent. Maia is one of those. You get a sense of who he is when he discovers he’s the emperor. He doesn’t ascend to the throne out of ambition, or because he has a Destiny to fulfill. This messenger shows up to take Maia to the capital, and he’s a little panicky but he goes along because he’s agreeable and conscientious. If this guy is telling Maia he’s the emperor now, he has to remember protocol and try his best to live up to his role, because trying his best is just what Maia does.

As Emperor Maia solves problems by building connections with other people. It’s his most vital skill. He has to rely on others often. He’s one of those Louis XIV on-constant-display emperors, so his position limits where he can go and what he can do. And he’s a constitutional monarch, not a dictator, so he can’t order his desires into reality at whim. Maia collects plenty of reliable allies because The Goblin Emperor, like other books I’ve reviewed recently, is optimistic fantasy. Maia’s world is unjust–women and people of Maia’s goblin ancestry are second class citizens, and economic inequality is bad enough to inspire revolutionary assassins. But most people mean well, and the world’s problems are fixable.

Maia is retiring by nature but conscientious enough to see when something needs to be done, and to do it, if it’s within his limits. He has moments of anger and resentment but is self-aware enough to recognize them and realize that anger in an emperor is dangerous. His mix of introversion and determination reminded me of another one of Sarah Monette’s characters–Kyle Murchison Booth, protagonist of the M. R. Jamesian stories in The Bone Key. Although fortunately for Maia he’s living in a fantasy novel, not a horror story.

But Maia’s story begins at the point where the standard epic fantasy clichés end. Fantasies starring would-be monarchs usually leave the coronation to the epilogue, spending their obligatory three volumes on travelogues interspersed with battles. Maia’s job isn’t to secure the throne. He has to figure out what to do once he’s on it. He spends the book negotiating, learning to navigate the bureaucracy, and figuring out the subtler details of elven politics. And it’s more absorbing and suspenseful than 99 percent of those multivolume quests. I wonder again, as I so often do, why so many SF novels lean so hard on action when thought and dialogue are what prose does best.

I’ve seen internet commenters argue that, despite being filled with elves and goblins and wizards and priests casting spells, The Goblin Emperor somehow isn’t actually fantasy. Apparently there’s not enough magic, or what magic exists in the book isn’t sufficiently plot-relevant. Which is stupid. I mean, first of all, The Goblin Emperor is not the kind of fantasy novel that explores every rule of a clockwork-perfect magic system, but that doesn’t mean that magic is absent. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t affect the plot isn’t paying attention, or maybe isn’t even reading carefully enough to recognize the plot. More importantly, as criteria for classifying a novel as fantasy “it’s gotta have wizard people” is asinine. Gormenghast does not have magic. Neither does Swordspoint. Magic is irrelevant to the plot of some Discworld novels–Monstrous Regiment, for instance, might as well take place in a world without it. Nobody questions their fantasy credentials. I’m not sure what’s different about The Goblin Emperor.[4]

Most importantly, The Goblin Emperor could not be set in the real world without burying its concerns under layers of real-world politics. It’s about a person of mixed background and ambiguous respectability thrown into an unexpectedly exalted position and learning to function in it and govern well. Now, you could, for instance, write an alternate history about an Anglo-Indian ruling the British empire instead of Queen Victoria. But that novel would be about India, and the British empire, and their cultures and history and politics. And the audience might have strong feelings about those issues that might overshadow other themes. The Goblin Emperor, by setting its story in an invented world, takes one step back from specific historical concerns. This allows it to focus on a question relevant to many times and places: in a flawed society, how can someone be a decent person in a position of power?

I mentioned that The Goblin Emperor starts where most epic fantasies end, with a new ruler coming to power. Science fiction and fantasy are especially political genres. Interestingly, fantasies about big political changes are more often concerned with what leads up to the change than the consequences, which maybe get a reassuring epilogue. Epic fantasies end in coronations; we never find out whether Aragorn is a competent administrator. Dystopian stories, if they allow their heroes to triumph over the repressive old order, don’t get into what those heroes plan to put in their place. Stories of revolution are about how the heroes get the upper hand, not how they rebuild. Snowpiercer smashes the train and doesn’t concern itself with how the survivors will get along in the freezing cold with the polar bears; Jupiter Ascending has no real idea what its heroine might do after securing her position among the Space Aristocrats.

Pop culture critics have spent gigabytes worrying over Hollywood’s ever-accelerating rebooting of its franchises. Most are fantasies of some kind–superheroes, super-spies, space operas. Every reboot is another chance to retell the hero’s origin. Hollywood loves origin stories, maybe because they match up with the Campbellian “hero’s journey” Hollywood still takes for a prescription. Expand the definition of “power” beyond the political into the personal–physical power, social power, economic power–and you can see how this connects to the last paragraph. Origin stories are about rising to power. We’ve all noticed superhero stories, our dominant film genre, can’t get away from origins. The comic books reboot themselves every couple of years now. Critics of literary SF speculate on why Young Adult novels are popular even among older readers. That fits the pattern, too: YA stories are about characters discovering their personal agency. By contrast, how many SF stories are about old people?

It’s not that no one writes SF about people trying to decently manage the power they have rather than leveling it up–in fact that describes Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, one of The Goblin Emperor’s Hugo co-nominees. But pop culture seems more interested in the process of getting power than in handling it responsibly.

I think this reflects a larger trend. American politicians exist in permanent campaign mode, always looking to the next election, and when they’re on the job many have no clear idea what to do beyond obstructing their colleagues from doing their jobs. Business leaders extract short-term profits while ignoring the long-term health of their businesses, then walk away with generous severance packages. Silicon valley startups base their business models on “disruption,” by which they mean looking for excuses not to follow the rules that apply to their competitors without worrying about what those rules are for. Americans in the 21st century want money and status. They don’t want to think about what they’ll do with it, or the effects of what they do to get it. Our popular culture gives us what we want, or what it thinks we want. So it gives us fewer stories about everyday responsibility, or how we live and work outside of the crises depicted in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Standardized epic fantasies pretend their heroes’ only job is to plant the right asses on the right thrones. But replacing the head of state does not reboot society. Maia is a more thoughtful and just person than the last emperor, but that doesn’t automatically make the system he’s now complicit in less corrupt. He’s going to have to put in a lot of slow, patient work to change it. The lesson of The Goblin Emperor is that diplomacy and administration, the everyday societal maintenance that keeps civilization running and sometimes even improves it, can be just as dramatic as revolution. The Goblin Emperor keeps traditionally “exciting” plots running in the background–a murder investigation, attempted coup, and attempted assassination. But the real climax comes when Maia convinces the ruling council to make their citizens’ lives a bit more convenient by building a bridge. I can’t imagine a climactic battle scene as exciting.

  1. Although, if you care, everything is explained in an appendix. I’d recommend getting a paper copy to facilitate flipping back and forth if you want to consult it.  ↩

  2. This is not an endorsement of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language constrains the way people think. Instead, the way people think shapes their language.  ↩

  3. This is why most of the detective novels I read are old. Hercule Poirot could be a fussbudget, but at least he didn’t need a minder to supervise all his interactions with other human beings.  ↩

  4. Well, beyond the fact that it was one of the few works to get a Hugo nomination on its own merits in a year dominated by incompetent pulp fiction nominated by resentful culture warriors.  ↩

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I haven’t posted to this blog in ages. I want to start writing again about the books I read: I don’t feel like I’ve been thinking about any of them as much as I should, and as a result I’ve increasingly gone for books with less in them to think about. Writing blog posts helps me get my thoughts in order.

I’m out of practice again and I expect for some time my writing will be terrible. One reason I haven’t blogged in a while is that everything I wrote seemed clumsy and pompous. Maybe before I can write well again I’ll just have to work through a clumsy pompous phase.

I’ll start by finishing book reviews I left half-written months ago. Like this one:

Coverof A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was the best fantasy novel I read in 2014, and maybe the best fantasy novel of 2013, period. It’s among a few books that restored my interest in SF and fantasy at a time when I’d nearly given up on the genres.

Stranger is a secondary-world fantasy about Jevick of Tyom, a young merchant who travels to a foreign country whose language and literature he loves. When the ghost of a fellow islander turns up to dictate her memoirs he’s caught between two religious factions with different ideas about people who can speak with ghosts, and discovers how little he knows the place.

I’ve seen reviews of Stranger complain the early chapters aren’t heavy on plot. This isn’t wrong, but it misses the point: Stranger just isn’t doing what these reviewers expected. The first couple of chapters are first-person immersive fantasy written as memoir, and you might expect that approach to continue through the end of the book, but this novel isn’t satisfied with a single genre or voice. Here’s a paragraph from the chapter when Jevick first sees the Olondrian city of Bain:

I loved the book markets under the swinging trees, the vast array of books on tables, in boxes, stacked on the ground, and the grand old villas converted into bookshops. I loved the Old City also, which is called the “Quarter of Sighs,” with its barred windows and brooding fortified towers, and I loved to watch the canal winding below the streets and bridges and the stealthy boats among the shadows of trees.

This is literary travel writing about an imaginary place. Jevick builds an impressionistic portrait of Bain from the specific details a charmed foreign tourist would notice, “selling” Bain to the reader as in a travel article. Later Jevick wakes after a wild night and sees only Bain’s tawdry side, the opposite of the details he noticed before. When the haunting begins Stranger conveys Jevick’s confusion with fragmented present tense excerpts from his diary. Stranger is an anthology of different kinds of fantasy writing, slipping into whatever style suits the story in that moment.

At the time I read it this was just what I needed. See, SF fandom has this obsession with “transparent prose.” Prose, in this theory, is a clear, clean window through which the reader “sees” a story. The text disappears; the content flows pure and undistorted from the writer’s brain to the reader’s. Which makes no sense, because the prose is what the content is made of. I like good straightforward prose, but most “transparent prose” novels are devoid of personality or voice. They erase their narrators and points of view, posing as stories told by nobody. I’ve given up on popular, much-recommended SF and fantasy novels because they read like neutral Wikipedia summaries of themselves. A Stranger in Olondria restored my enthusiasm for the genres by moving through several styles of writing and doing them all brilliantly.

Those same reviews seemed to feel that Stranger picked up halfway through, and I think that’s because after Olondria’s religious squabbles ensnare Jevick his story enters more familiar territory, resembling the quest fantasies whose heroes learn their world (and teach it to the readers) by traveling it. Jevick gets one take on Olondria from its religious authorities, and another from the cultists interested in his newfound abilities as a medium, and the people and places he encounters as he travels deepen and complicate both sides of the argument. Stranger travels through other genres along the way–history, folktales, poetry. The climax of the novel is the story of Jissavet, Jevick’s ghost. Jevick and Jissavet both write memoirs but their voices are nothing alike. This is partly characterization but also partly structural: Jissavet speaks extemporaneously. She orders her story thematically as well as chronologically, letting one memory remind her of another as people do when recollecting aloud.

It’s a book about books that itself samples many kinds of books. And in saying that I may have just put some people off. Since the audience for novels inevitably consists of people who love books, it’s tempting for stories about books to get overly sentimental. Books change readers’ lives, dude; create worlds in which they escape their miseries. These stories ascribe near-magical powers and omniscient wisdom to our favorite pulped-wood products, sometimes flat-out declaring that books are better than people. I’ve felt this myself sometimes; that’s probably true of anybody who loves books.

A Stranger in Olondria is a novel, so you know it’s going to come down on the pro-book side. But the story it tells is more complicated. Jevick’s books haven’t fully prepared him for life and his story is partly about learning to love them wisely. I won’t get too far into this topic; there’s a review at Asking the Wrong Questions that goes deeper than I can manage. But Stranger’s argument for the value of literacy is more specific and more interesting than most “Books Rule!” stories.

One of the few books I managed to review in the last couple of years was Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties That Bound, a social history of medieval British peasant communities. Hanawalt resorted to combing through accident reports to reconstruct these peoples’ lives. There aren’t many primary sources on medieval peasants; they weren’t always literate and didn’t leave many letters or diaries. Their families knew their stories, and maybe passed them down for a few generations, but it’s hard to get the wider world to care about great-grandpa William’s misadventure with the haywain. So the pre-mass-literacy Europeans we know best are the upper classes, those famous and influential enough to be written about. The closer you get to the present the less true that is. The spread of mass literacy meant that more and more people, and more and more kinds of people, sent letters and kept diaries. Our view of 13th-century peasants is almost entirely from the outside, but we can learn more about the point of view of, for example, 19th-century mill workers.

What’s most relevant to Stranger is that literacy doesn’t just preserve the voices of people overlooked by history. It preserves the voices of people no one, even their peers, thought worth listening to in the first place. The stories that survive through oral tradition do so because a community actively chose to pass them along, and the criteria it uses to make those choices aren’t necessarily good. Every family has relatives they don’t talk about and every community has people they’ve decided don’t matter. Jissavet is desperate for Jevick to write her book because the illness she died of made her an outcast. In life no one would listen to her. And maybe no one wants to listen to her now, but writing, unlike speech, can survive without anyone actively paying attention. Barring accident or active censorship, the words will still be there if and when someone wants to listen.

When Jevick returns home, he decides to become a kind of teacher called a tchavi. Traditionally these teachers lived on mountains, making prospective students struggle to reach them like gurus out of New Yorker cartoons. Jevick instead comes into town, teaching anyone who wants to write.

Books are as close as we can get to long-distance mind-to-mind communication. They fulfill their potential when they give minds of all kinds the chance to connect. And writing can communicate across time: if no one wants to hear it now, it will (assuming at least one copy survives) still be waiting, unchanged, for a more receptive audience.

Your Best SF List is Terrible

I like fantasy and SF, as you can probably tell from this blog, but this article that recently appeared in the New Statesman is right: most “best” or “most important” SF/fantasy lists are terrible.

The biggest problem with the fantasy and SF genres is that their critical canon formed around what fans liked when they were twelve. And much of fandom’s tastes never matured beyond that. When someone curious about SF asks for recommendations I cringe, because I know I’m going to see fans jump in to push the Foundation trilogy, or Heinlein’s YA novels, as though any adult would want to read them. If the golden age of SF is twelve, that’s because hardcore fans keep pushing books that would appeal only to twelve-year-olds.

Not that there aren’t enough genuinely good SF novels to fill a real top 100 list… but in a lot of cases online fandom doesn’t seem to remember they exist. Earlier this year I read Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre. At the time it came out it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It’s a great book (once I get my blog going again–it’ll happen someday soon, I swear–I ought to review it) and obviously a major work. But it was out of print for years, and even now is only available as an ebook, and no one talks about it at all.

Lately SF circles have been having a recurring conversation about the improbable maleness of the SF canon. Lists of the best or most important SF often default to a few well-known mid–20th-century male writers–Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, etc.–many of whom were never worth reading in the first place, let alone fifty or sixty years after their time. (Yeah, Foundation was influential once, but there’s no reason for a SF fan to read it now any more than a student of English literature needs to read The Castle of Otranto.) These are the only writers the list-makers have heard of, so they’re the only writers who appear in these lists, so they’re the only writers later list-makers have heard of. It’s a vicious cycle.

But canons aren’t fixed. Ask anyone to name the greatest American novel and chances are they’ll nominate Moby Dick. But Moby Dick flopped when it was new and didn’t find its audience until the 1920s. The SF canon, after 50 years of critical reappraisals, is going to look different, too. I wish I had a time machine so I could see how it looks.

Raskolnikov, C’est Nous

A cartoon of Newt Gingrich reading Slan.

Compulsive readers get used to finding unexpected connections between books. I also make random connections while wasting time on the internet. Sometimes, like now, this leads to a blog post’s worth of dubious, rambling speculation and crazy theories.

A few days ago I read a blog post at Welcome to My World by Martin McGrath called “Why Does SF Hate Ordinary People?”1 finding a strain of contempt for ordinary people in certain science fiction and fantasy novels.

“Ordinary” has many definitions, so before proceeding I should explain what, in this case, it doesn’t mean: As I write, among the memes stumbling around the internet is a quiz based on a new book by famed statistic-mangler Charles Murray. It supposedly measures how much contact you have with “ordinary” Americans. Actually, it asks questions based on a stereotype of rural white midwesterners (Can you identify this NASCAR driver? Do you have a fridge full of Pabst Blue Ribbon?) and suggests anyone who can’t answer in the affirmative is living in a “bubble.” It must be a very large bubble. It would have to contain most of the country’s actual working class.

The culture-war definition of “ordinary” is not what this blog post is about. Being staggeringly bored by cars driving in circles very fast is not less legitimate than being entertained by them. Another term for making judgements about culture is having taste.

These “ordinary” people have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are not wealthy, famous, heroic, or adventure-prone. They hold down middle- or working-class jobs and keep regular schedules. Their biggest worries aren’t crusades, revolutions, or the impending apocalypse; they’re rents or mortgages, health care, child care, and putting food on the table. They’re “ordinary” only in the sense that they live like the vast majority of people in our society–or whatever fantastic society they call home, which may or may not have mortgages but certainly has people whose main concerns are not the stuff of high drama. As an example McGrath cites Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie potboiler Zone One, which judges the average American too inept to survive an emergency, valorizing, in McGrath’s words, “the loners, the socially inept and those who chafe against the ‘burdens’ imposed on them by the social contract that knits the rest of us together.”

When I finished reading McGrath’s post my brain turned to thoughts of Newt Gingrich. Which sounds, I grant you, quite the random leap. I can explain. See, in one of the endless series of Republican presidential debates, Gingrich revealed a cunning plan to solve school budget problems and reduce the dropout rate: child labor.

“New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”2

Not long after the debate I read a post by “Kay” at Balloon Juice, “Only the Elites Insult the Working Adults Who Pick Up After Us,” that made explicit something not everyone picked up on:3

While it’s certainly interesting that opposing child labor laws is now a mainstream position on the Right and among conservative news personalities, I hear something else entirely in Gingrich’s statement than the pundits and politicians heard. Newt Gingrich told us all last night that nine year olds can replace the grown men and women who currently do these jobs. Newt Gingrich believes janitors and cafeteria workers and people who work in school libraries and offices can and should be replaced by children.

That’s how much respect Gingrich has for the work that these people do.

Gingrich, of course, is an SF fan who loves Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and has co-written several alternate history novels. McGrath, on his blog, traces a thread of science-fictional disrespect for the ordinary back to the “golden age” of SF, when:

…the triumph of the “golden era’s” omni-competent men, the math-wizard engineers, scientists and the all-knowing astronauts, was always about the final victory of those who felt they were hard done by in a society that did not properly value their obviously superior intelligence.

Which is true. And not necessarily political; I was reminded of Gingrich, but McGrath sees disdain for the ordinary in both right-leaning and left-leaning SF. The thing is, I don’t think “Why does SF hate ordinary people” is the right question. You might ask it about fiction in general.

Dostoeyvsky parodied this attitude over a century ago in Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov, the self-styled “extraordinary” man. According to the Raskolnikov theory the world revolves around powerful, charismatic Great Individuals, the lynchpins and keystones of civilization. If they’re in politics, our safety and security depend on their strength and resolution; if they’re in business, our prosperity depends on their innovation and creativity. Whatever these extraordinary people do, we can’t hold them to the same rules the rest of us follow. Sometimes, to get the job done, they have to break them. You might remember these ideas from such novels as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, but it’s also the premise of every second Hollywood action movie, ever.4

A few days after McGrath asked his question, Gareth Rees’s post about the teapot-tempest stirred up by a book review at Strange Horizons led me to Caleb Crain’s New York Times review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work:

Describing a manager who feeds him lunch, de Botton writes that “years of working around noisy machinery had left my host mildly deaf in one ear and given him a concomitant habit of leaning in uncomfortably close during discussions, so close that I began to dread his enunciation of a word with a ”˜p’ or a ”˜g’ in it.” For good measure, de Botton adds that the man bores him, perhaps as a result of his “surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.” If de Botton were genuinely concerned that work today lacks meaning, surely here was an opportunity to ask questions. But is he worried that work today lacks meaning? Or just that some work means more to other people than he thinks it should?

This is aimed at the same target, but from a different direction. It’s the contempt of the counterculture for the squares–contempt from outside as opposed to Raskolnikov’s contempt from above. Contempt from outside sees regular, orderly lives as a curse and the people who live them as dupes or zombies. It sees white collar workers as gray killjoys, blue collar workers as Morlocks. They’re buttoned-down and repressed; obstacles to be routed around, or beaten-down victims who need a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to loosen them up and teach them to enjoy life. Contempt from outside sees Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces telling the waitress to hold the chicken salad between her knees, and thinks Bobby DuPea is a free spirit sticking it to The Man rather than, as I think the filmmakers intended, an asshole.

Gingrich sees “ordinary” people as inept, inferior–in comparison his own success is proof of his competence. De Botton sees “ordinary” people as limited, unimaginative–in comparison, he’s deeper, more free. What these attitudes have in common is that they help their holders define themselves as something other than ordinary.

I don’t think many genuine full-time Gingriches and de Bottons exist. In real life, hardly anyone hates ordinary people. In real life, most of us are ordinary. But these kinds of contempt are basic assumptions in many books and many movies–fundamental to the narrative’s world view–and, as long as we’re reading or watching, we go along with it.

The reason is simple: in fiction, ordinary is boring.

It’s hard to hold an audience’s interest in a very long and intricate description of a hero washing dishes. We’ve washed our own so often it takes genius to show us anything fresh. Fiction centers around the most important, most dramatic events of its characters’ lives; unusual, extraordinary events, even adventures. The characters who aren’t going through big changes aren’t the main cast, they’re the extras. Fiction skips the quotidian details.

At this point Raymond Carver busts into the room, waving a copy of Best American Short Stories. “Hey!” he says. “I’m standing right here, y’know!” And Ray has a point. Huge swathes of stories, ranging from great to unreadable, anchor themselves in the everyday. As pro-genre as I am, I’ll admit when it comes to ordinary people the novels filed under “literature” have a better track record than the ones that get filed under “genre.” Heck, sometimes the skill with which a book deals with the ordinary determines where we file it. Still, the protagonists of even the weightiest of serious literature have deeper thoughts and more passionate affairs than most of us have most of the time. If the protagonist is an Uncle Vanya or a Madame Bovary, living entirely without excitement or drama, chances are the story is about how he or she wants that to change:

I am clever and brave and strong. If I had lived a normal life I might have become another Schopenhauer or Dostoieffski.

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

In reality, thinking like Vanya lead people into weird places–especially if Vanya starts listening to Raskolnikov. Maybe, thinks Vanya, I can be Raskolnikov, too! Yeah, maybe now he’s filed away in a tiny beige cubicle. But the Great Individuals didn’t get their amazing, superhuman abilities by educating themselves or devotedly practicing their craft. Their talents just sort of came to them, because they’re special. Just like, deep down inside, he’s special. Someday he’ll be Great, too. All he has to do is believe in himself.

Our popular fiction is swarming with spunky nobodies discovering natural God-given talents–not skills, because they rarely need to work at them–and overcoming hidebound establishments and opposition from nay-saying friends and family to fulfill their dreams. Often this is a fantasy-hero thing–see The Matrix, Star Wars, or other stories about Chosen Ones who inherit their powers, or unleash their inner badass after very little training. I’m often struck by the contrast between modern adventure movies and older Hitchcock-style thrillers whose average heroes muddled through extraordinary adventures without manifesting heretofore unsuspected Kung Fu.

In the movies, the follow-your-dreams hero is as likely to become an entertainer, or some other kind of celebrity. These stories combine the “special person” narrative with the “outsider vs. the squares” narrative–their heroes succeed because they’re more soulful and free-spirited than the hoi polloi. Who are–to bring this essay back to the point–us, in the audience, watching.

It’s tempting to identify with the hero’s point of view even when, technically, that point of view doesn’t like us very much. One of the attractions of fiction is that people think in stories. We make sense of our lives by organizing them into narratives in which we’re the central characters. We feel like protagonists, exceptional people. In a way, from our own viewpoints, we are exceptions: every one of us is the only person whose head we live inside–the one person whose thoughts and point of view we have full access to, as we have access to the thoughts and POV of a novel’s protagonist. It’s the protagonist that we measure ourselves against, not the extras and walk-ons. When the narrative point of view tries to open some space between the hero and the herd we instinctively side with the hero.

Which is fine. The danger comes when too many of our stories define their heroes as better than everyone else. Stories are one of the big ways a culture or subculture spreads its values. Hearing a message over and over again habituates us. It can become part of the cultural furniture, something those who share these stories unthinkingly assume to be true.

There’s long been a toxic strain in SF fandom, a subculture-within-a-subculture that actually believes SF fans are superior to the common horde. Some fans in years gone only half-jokingly coined the phrase “fans are slans,” comparing themselves to the scorned superhumans of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan. Even today SF appeals to more than its fair share of inflated egos. Even those of us with no interest in formal, organized fandom run into these people when we make the mistake of reading an internet comment thread. Would-be writers convinced their self-published zombie-vampire-dragon trilogies would sell millions if the market weren’t conspiring against them. Self-styled omni-competent men who think all they need to reveal their true potential is the breakdown of civilization. Guys who whine about “political correctness” if a book’s protagonist is female or gay or something.

Part of getting along with people, functioning in society, and maintaining a working sense of empathy is keeping in mind that, though we’re our own protaginists, so is everyone else–to others, we’re supporting characters or extras. If we find this tough to accept, maybe our culture–whether “our culture” means SF fans or American culture in general–isn’t hearing that message often enough. We could stand to be more comfortable in our ordinariness.

  1. Via ↩

  2. And yet Gingrich is upset by a janitors’ union negotiating for a living wage. I guess it’s because he’s an elite! ↩

  3. Via ↩

  4. As well as a lot of comics. R. Sikoryak once drew a mashup of Crime and Punishment and Batman, with Batman as Raskolnikov. They fit together frighteningly well. ↩

Links to Things

Here are a few things I’ve been reading lately:

Reviewing Worlds of Exile and Illusion (Part One)

Worlds of Exile and Illusion collects Ursula K. Le Guin’s first three novels. By current standards, they’re short books–the first two were published as Ace Doubles, backed with books by Avram Davidson and Thomas M. Disch. They’re minor Le Guin, but minor Le Guin is still better than much of the science fiction being published at any given time.1

These books have also been collected under the title Three Hainish Novels. The Hainish universe is where most of Le Guin’s science fiction novels take place. Here’s the backstory: all known intelligent life forms, us included,2 are the descendants of colonists from the planet Hain. Everybody in this universe is some kind of human–some, like the Gethenians or Athsheans, are very different kinds, but they’re still relatives, if distant relatives. This is, as much as anything, a metaphor: the Hainish universe is no place for the kind of unbridgeable mutual incomprehension you get in, say, Starship Troopers.

Ages later, the human races (or Hainish races, if you want to get technical) are discovering space flight and rediscovering each other. Devices called ansibles allow instant communication between any two points in the universe. The Ekumen, or League of Worlds, coordinates cultural contact and exchanges of information between worlds. This happens mostly via ansible because information can travel faster than light, but living beings can’t. Near light speed time dilation applies. A journey of a dozen light years will take a few hours for the passengers, but more than a dozen years from the point of view of the outside universe. Representing the Ekumen as an envoy to a new world means taking a one-way trip: by the time you get home, if you ever do, everything you know will be gone.

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions take place on the fringes of a war between the League of Worlds and a mysterious, hostile culture called the Shing, who by the third novel have conquered the Earth. Le Guin’s starting point for these books was the unthoughtful pulp space opera favored by Doc Smith and Edmund Hamilton, which doesn’t sit comfortably with her later work. These novels work best when Le Guin pulls away from the space war narrative.

Rocannon’s World

Cover art

Before fantasy took off as a marketing category, one way to sell a fantasy novel was to laminate it with a thin veneer of science fiction. That fantasy world? Another planet. Those fabulous creatures? Aliens. Magic? Invoke Clarke’s Third Law,3 or “psionics,” which in the science fiction genre are pretty much magic with laboratory cred.

That’s the kind of book Rocannon’s World is: a hundred-page condensed epic fantasy quest. In a couple of ways it’s uncharacteristic of Le Guin’s work. First, one important element of Le Guin’s work is the theme of different cultures making contact and coming to an understanding. It’s the primary plot of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Telling, both novels about Ekumen envoys on recently contacted worlds, and a major part of The Disposessed and The Other Wind. And this is exactly the part of the story that Rocannon’s World skips! Rocannon decides to visit Fomalhaut II in “Semley’s Necklace”; by the first chapter he’s been there for months and is already close friends with the local lord. Second, in one sequence where Rocannon and his allies are captured, taken to a deserted city, and nearly eaten by a band of uncommunicative winged humanoids. It reads like Le Guin’s take on The Thing From Another World, and it’s bizarrely out of place in a universe otherwise free of bug-eyed monsters.

I may come back to those points later when I write about City of Illusions (in a second post, since this one is getting large and as usual I’m writing at a snail’s pace). For now, the point is that Rocannon’s World, as a whole, is not the most remarkable or characteristic thing in Le Guin’s bibliography. Which is why I’m about to spend the bulk of this review talking about the prologue.

Rocannon’s World grew from Le Guin’s short story “Semley’s Necklace,” which became its prologue.4 “Semley’s Necklace” is a story about a woman who enters fairyland for a night to retrieve a family treasure stolen by dwarves, only to find on her return that a generation has passed, her husband is dead, and her daughter is a stranger. It’s a classic fairy tale plot, with the small differences that Semley is from Fomalhaut II, the dwarves are aliens, and traveling to fairyland means flying a spaceship to a museum on another planet.

What makes “Semley’s Necklace” different from a straightforward “yes, but my telepathic dragons are aliens” story is that Le Guin switches styles when she switches planets. The Fomahaut sections are lyrical, and just slightly flavored with the rhythms of oral storytelling. For the museum scenes Le Guin switches to the prosaic, straightforward third person favored by pre-new-wave SF. The implied narrator of Semley’s story is a high fantasy writer, or maybe a folklorist with literary aspirations. Rocannon’s narrator is writing for Astounding Science Fiction.

A vocal minority of hard SF fans are snobs about fantasy. They grumble when a fantasy novel wins a Hugo award. They complain when bookstores file the fantasy and SF together. There was a time when I myself thought I hated fantasy. My excuse is that I was twelve. Even then, though, the “Oh sweet Jeebus there’s chocolate in my peanut butter” attitude didn’t make much sense to me. Where was the hard and fast line between these genres? Don’t they sort of blend into each other? Science fiction stories present themselves as extrapolations of reality, but in practice total impossibilities–telepathy, faster-than-light travel–are acceptable as long as they behave like real-life physical phenomena, working according to definite, predictable rules. Many fantasy worlds are built on similar rigorously worked-out rules (the Lord Darcy stories), or include nothing supernatural at all (the Gormenghast books). Any hard-and-fast definition of either science fiction or fantasy will leave out some edge cases.

It’s clear from “Semley’s Necklace” that whether a story is SF or fantasy partly depends on point of view: how much the narrator, the characters, and by extension the readers understand about the world of the story. Take time dilation. According to the laws of relativity, as an Ekumen ship approaches light speed, time slows down for anyone on board. From Semley’s perspective, she travels for a few hours, stops briefly to pick up her necklace, turns right around and returns home the next morning to find that sixteen years have passed in one night.

Which is also what happens to people who visit other worlds in fairy tales. The difference is that for the hapless denizens of fairyland, as for Semley, this time shift is frightening and inexplicable. For Rocannon, “time slows as you approach light speed” is a fact as unremarkable as “running out of gas makes the car stop working” or “food gets hot in the microwave.” From his point of view the interesting and mysterious thing isn’t that Semley has skipped sixteen years, but that she’s travelled eight light years just to retrieve a necklace. So maybe whether we read a story as science fiction or fantasy depends partly on what the protagonists find wondrous, mysterious, and strange–on the story’s own attitude towards its fantastic elements. The more the non-realist material is treated as a normal, well-understood part of the world, the more the story feels like science fiction.

  1. Their companion novels are pretty much the same deal–Avram Davidson and Thomas Disch were major writers, but these particular books (The Kar-Chee Reign and Mankind Under the Leash) are so obscure I’d never heard of them until I researched this review. ↩

  2. You might object that this doesn’t jibe with the fossil record, but SF writers are allowed that kind of thing when setting up their premises. No one objects to FTL travel, and that’s also technically absurd. ↩

  3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ↩

  4. “Semley’s Necklace” is also collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. It reads a bit oddly when divorced from its novel: the first paragraph claims it’s a story about Rocannon, but on its own it’s clearly about Semley. ↩